Stewardship programs should be place-based and build trust among participants, leaders, and partner organizations

DuBois, B., Krasny, M. E., & Smith, J. C. (2018). Connecting brawn, brains, and people: An exploration of non-traditional outcomes of youth stewardship programs. Environmental Education Research, 24, 937-954.

This research used a multi-case-study approach to examine non-traditional outcomes of youth engaged in civic ecology education programs. The outcomes investigated related to social learning, social capital, and power relations. Three research questions framed the study: 1) to what degree does social learning take place in paid internship and other programs that engage youth in civic ecology practices? (2) to what degree do program participants form ties with other participants, program leaders, and outside collaborators? (3) how do participants describe the impacts of these programs and their future interest in engaging in environmental stewardship activities?”

Six summer youth civic ecology education programs participated in this study. All of the programs serve low-income and ethnically-diverse urban youth. Five of the programs are in post-industrial US cities and offer paid conservation-related internships to urban youth. The other program is in a rural area near a city and engages youth as volunteers in stewardship activities. Data collection methods included participant observation, interviews, and group mind-mapping (a strategy for visually organizing information and ideas). The youth participated in the mind-mapping exercise before and at the end of their program.

Overall results showed that while all the participating youth worked on projects to enhance green space in cities, social learning outcomes for the youth varied among programs. Differing outcomes were evident in the development of social relationships and in the extent to which they were interested in engaging in further stewardship activities.  The youth were not generally involved in setting goals for the program. Their engagement consisted primarily of collaborative work on projects led by the program leaders.  While participating youth developed strong relationships with program leaders, they did not form strong ties with their peers or with individuals from outside programs. Participants appreciated the opportunity to lead other volunteers in stewardship activities and seemed to value being viewed as a role model in working for the environment. Mind-mapping results showed that youth who participated in activities focusing on a single resource and place tended to develop a more local, and nuanced understanding of environmental stewardship than what they had when they entered the program.

These outcomes suggest that environmental education programs have the potential to promote social learning and youth development through hands-on stewardship activities. Suggestions for improving the effectiveness of such programs include focusing stewardship activities on a specific place and include strategies for building trust among participants and outside collaborators.

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